A pope stretched between the demand of presenting a gospel of mercy and the demand to uphold the timeless teachings of Christ
With the opening of the Synod on the Family in Rome, Pope Francis is walking the tightrope stretched between the principles of mercy and justice, between reforming the faith and defending the faith, between a pastoral approach and a disciplinary approach. When it comes to the thorny issues of sexual morality and family life, it seems clear where Pope Francis’s heart lies.
Whether it is In a private phone call encouraging an Argentinian woman in a troubled marriage, in his famous shrug of the shoulders about those with same sex attraction: “Who am I to judge?,” his positive nod to Cardinal Kasper’s reforming ideas, or his plea that the synod be open and honest, Pope Francis re-affirms his heart-felt conviction that mercy is paramount and that, in the area of sexuality and marriage, the church must find a positive way forward.
The pope’s feelings seem to be summed up in his words to the faithful gathered for the prayer vigil before the synod, saying that “We must lend our ears to the beat of this time and perceive the ‘scent’ of the people today, so as to remain permeated with their joys and hopes, by their sadness and distress, at which time we will know how to propose the good news of the family with credibility.”
The perennial problem the pope and the bishops gathered in synod face is the how the gospel of Jesus Christ both connects and conflicts with contemporary culture. In our own age the great challenge is to uphold the unchanging teachings of Christ’s church about marriage in the face of huge changes taking place in society’s understanding of marriage. The pope’s tightrope is stretched between the demand of presenting a gospel of mercy and the demand to uphold the timeless teachings of Christ about marriage and human sexuality.
In previous ages the Catholic Church faced different challenges of similar magnitude. How was the church to uphold the dignity and freedom of all human beings in the face of institutionalized slavery? How was the Church to face the challenges associated with the accumulation of wealth and power while still living out the gospel of the poor, condemned man of Nazareth? How was the church to face the challenges of murderous dictatorships while still submitting properly to earthly powers? In every age the popes and the people have confronted dilemmas that seem unsolvable.
The particular tightrope Pope Francis faces in the Synod of the Family is the need, on the one hand, to uphold Catholic teaching on marriage while endorsing a merciful and accepting pastoral approach to all people. How should the Church maintain discipline while offering forgiveness? How should we welcome and accept divorced and remarried Catholics or encourage cohabiting couples to be married, while we also challenge their decisions and call them to a higher standard of morality? How does the pope uphold the unchanging teachings of the Lord Jesus while welcoming and affirming all those who wish to belong to the Church?
The pope’s dilemma is faced by every parish priest. This is not an arcane theological or theoretical discussion, but a practical and pastoral concern that involves Catholics at every level. What should a parish priest do when young couples who are living together come to be married in church, but do not think anything is wrong with their lifestyle? What should a parish priest do with devout members of his parish who, he discovers, are in their second or third marriage? What should a parish priest do when a same-sex couple seeks to enroll their child in the parish school or ask to have their “marriage” blessed? Pope Francis’s tightrope is crowded. Every Catholic bishop and priest is facing the same seemingly unsolvable questions.